Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
The school system’s plan to build affordable apartment units for the city’s teachers has triggered a fierce backlash in one affluent area.
Taylor Swenson doesn’t want to leave San José. She doesn’t want to leave the teachers in the San José Unified School District she’s been training for three years, or abandon the kids she’s been supporting for almost a decade, or stop going to the downtown street festivals she’s been attending since childhood. But along with hundreds of her fellow educators in San José, she’s grappling with the reality that living in housing-stretched, inhospitably expensive Northern California on a teachers’ salary is getting impossible. One by one, they’ve been getting out.
“We don’t have our heart set on somewhere else,” Swenson says, “because our heart is set on here.”
She and her husband are lucky: They rent a two-bedroom apartment downtown for close to the zip code’s $3,100-per-month average, she says, near to the San José Unified schools she started teaching for in 2010 and now works as a teacher coach. Many of her colleagues drive up to two hours into the city center each morning, from places like Tracy and Stockton and Livermore. Others make ends meet by living with multiple roommates. But if things don’t change, Swenson will be forced to join the exodus of less-affluent Bay Area residents who are leaving the region for more-affordable climes.
San José has a median home price of almost $1.1 million, according to Zillow, and a median rental price of almost $3,500. For teachers and other public employees, these costs have also been paired with stagnant teacher wages. (The base pay for a new teacher in the San José Unified School District is around $55,000; the average elementary and high-school teacher takes home closer to $71,000.)
Schools have felt the impact: Of the approximately 1,400 classroom teachers employed by the San José Unified School District, one in seven have to be replaced every year, according to deputy superintendent Stephen McMahon. The most common reason teachers offered for leaving has been the cost of living. “This to us is concerning,” said McMahon. “We want our students to have long-term teachers. And we want to be able to help teachers support their families.”
To a degree, San José shares this problem with many other cities—every state had a teacher shortage last year. But the towering gap between Silicon Valley’s housing prices and its teachers’ salaries have led SJUSD officials to consider an unusual solution: They want to build affordable workforce housing for struggling teachers in the district.
Specifically, the San José Unified School District is looking at building affordable rental units on some of 41 active school sites it owns in Santa Clara County. The plan is still more of an idea than a fine-tuned proposal at this point, but nine sites were chosen as viable candidates, because they’re currently under-enrolled or in need of an upgrade. The schools wouldn’t close entirely, but their original buildings could be razed and rebuilt, and students reallocated elsewhere.
But two of those prospects, Leland High School and Bret Harte Middle School, are located in the Almaden Valley, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the county. And many community members there responded to the scheme with outrage.
Soon after the district announced the nine-school short list on September 27, Greg Braley, a resident of Almaden Valley, started a Change.org petition to “Save Leland and Bret Harte.” (It now has almost 6,000 signatures.) Residents, the petition reads, are “distraught and concerned” about the prospect of teacher housing. “It’s just frankly not in fitting with the rest of the community,” Braley told a local Fox channel. (Braley did not respond to CityLab’s requests for comment.) According to The Mercury News, a recent public meeting to discuss the plan “devolved into angry shouting.”
Nationally, advocates for building more affordable housing swiftly latched on to the spectacle of affluent homeowners leading a teacher-housing backlash as a way to illustrate the contemptibility of the Bay Area’s NIMBY activism. From a pro-development YIMBY perspective, the comments left on Braley’s Change.org petition might serve the same function.
“Building houses in every nook and cranny is not the solution!” one signer wrote. Another commented: “Taking away two fantastic neighborhood schools to bring in low income housing is absolutely ridiculous … This would devalue home prices in the area significantly. This isn’t really a consideration, is it?”
One more added: “Do this and ‘affordable housing’ will flood (fill up 10 stories high in ugly buildings) the Almaden Valley. This project is the thin edge of the wedge, IMHO.”
Such sentiments have long reverberated across Bay Area communities, says Leslye Corsiglia, the executive director of Silicon Valley @ Home, an affordable housing advocacy group. But lately they’ve been getting louder. “I attribute some of that to the current state of discourse at the national level,” she said. “It used to be that you opposed new development by saying, ‘Oh it’s going to cause more traffic or impact our schools,’ and now you hear people say things like, ‘We don’t want low-income people here because they’re not educated and it will impact our community.’”
Similar objections were recently raised in nearby Cupertino (average home price: over $2 million) over a plan to transform an abandoned mall into 2,400 housing units, half of which would be affordable. “This would mean that we would have uneducated people living in Cupertino,” one community member said at a meeting. “A lot of other residents and I are concerned that this would make the current residents of Cupertino uncomfortable, and would split our city in half.”
The Cupertino project was approved anyway. But the combination of angry residents and historically restrictive zoning laws has been an effective foil for new housing construction, and a major headache for city leaders struggling to keep lower-income workers from leaving. An uncharacteristic wave of out-migration has rippled across the San Francisco Bay Area in recent years. In 2017, the number of people moving away from the region was the highest in more than a decade. That exodus has been accompanied by an almost equal and opposite influx of higher-income newcomers—which, according to an October paper out of UC Berkeley and BuildZoom, accounts for widening inequality in the region. According to the report:
The discrepancy between the inbound and outbound movers captures the intensity with which the region’s social fabric is changing. In fact, among all large U.S. metros, the Bay Area has the greatest such discrepancy. The concern is that a greater outflow of people from the Bay Area means the nature of the region is changing more rapidly and profoundly than before.
And there may be more change on the way: According to a survey by the business-backed policy advocacy group Bay Area Council, 46 percent of residents (in varied professions) who haven’t yet left for cheaper pastures want to.
That will only make life harder for school officials like SJUSD’s McMahon. The district is already losing about 200 of its teachers every year, thanks in large part to the area’s punishing housing prices. He’d hoped this plan to address the problem would be received differently: After all, these low-income newcomers would be their own kids’ teachers, who already engage with parents closely and frequently, and are often hailed as public servants.
“It’s been hard for our teachers to hear [the outcry] because their reaction is, ‘I’m a person who works with your kid every day—you trust me with your student in my classroom but I’m not good enough to be your neighbor?’” said McMahon. “The teachers feel like they’re giving students and neighborhood families their best and to feel unwelcome is a hard thing.”
“I’m embarrassed on behalf of our teachers,” added Susan Ellenberg, the president of the San José Unified School Board. “Why should anybody not welcome them into a neighborhood?”
That characterization of the backlash isn’t fair, says Robert Braunstein, who opposes the district’s proposal. It’s not that people don’t want teachers to have affordable housing—it’s about where it will be sited, and what’s there now.
He’s lived in Almaden Valley for 50 years, and attended both Bret Harte and Leland. His main objection to the idea is that it could pose a threat to those schools, which could be demolished and relocated to another site. “The logistics and the zoning and the plan itself doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said.
No specific construction or demolition plans have been made, Ellenberg and McMahon insist—this is only a plan to make plans. But one potential scenario the district has floated is to raze the Leland and Brett Harte schools, rebuild them next to an elementary school in southern Almaden Valley, and put affordable housing (mostly single-family style) on their old grounds. That elementary school-adjacent land is owned by the county government, not the district, so Ellenberg says they’d try to negotiate a land swap for the less viable plot near the Coyote Valley.
To pay for it, they’re hoping to qualify for a portion of the $950 million housing bond Santa Clara County approved in 2016, called Measure A. The bulk of that fund is earmarked for supportive housing projects, but another $200 million is targeted at innovative public-private partnerships that support things like tax-subsidized workforce housing. “A large part of the reason we are embarking on this project is that both the county and city came to the district and asked if we were interested in building teacher housing on any of our properties,” Ellenberg said. But it’s not clear how much Measure A would provide. They’d also seek funds from state and local affordable housing measures, as well as developers.
That’s a lot of “ifs,” Braunstein says. “My feeling would be to build the housing in the more central part of San José, with school district land they already own, so they wouldn’t have to trade land,” he said. Under this proposal, student athletes would have to be bused all the way back to the recently renovated athletic fields at the current locations; new single-family units would crowd the downtown; and expressways would clog.
But McMahon counters that concerns about these details disguise something more fundamental: “Almaden Valley, where the negative energy is coming from, has this history of feeling like, ‘students who don’t live in the neighborhood were forced into our schools,’” he said. “And a lot of the rhetoric and tone they’re using are similar to those conversations. They use terms like renters, Section 8, low-income.”
Not all communities with schools on the shortlist have reacted as negatively as Almaden Valley has. “The people who are outspoken are the people in the affluent areas,” said SV@Home’s Corsiglia. Her family lives near Selma Olinder Elementary School, another SJUSD property up for consideration. “There’s been no outcry here, even in my neighborhood group, which is usually very vocal.”
So the opposition has been “challenging,” says Ellenberg, but it’s also premature: None of the proposed locations are tagged for demolition yet, says Ellenberg. Whatever they build will be consistent with neighborhood aesthetics—a far cry from the “1970’s projects” they may be envisioning, she adds.
And the main reason Leland High School and Bret Harte Middle School are up for consideration at all is that their 1960s-era buildings are some of the oldest in the district. “Generally, communities are excited about new facilities—I imagine, if we announced we’d be building a new high school for Willow Glen High School, I can imagine Almaden parents saying, ‘But wait, our school is so much older, we need a new facility,’” said Ellenburg. “What the Almaden community is asking for is to prematurely remove them from the list.”
Braunstein agrees that the issue isn’t the possibility of new investment itself: It’s the location. “I think people would love to see improvements at the schools,” he said. “But do that where they’re sitting, and not build brand new schools and tear down those schools.”
This isn’t a new problem, and neither is the suggested solution: Nearly two decades ago, another school district in Santa Clara County broke ground on affordable teacher housing.
Turn-of-the-millennium Silicon Valley had a lot of the same problems it does now. “It was the same basic facts that are playing out today: It was expensive to live in the Bay Area at the time, and teachers were struggling to live in the same area as they were teaching,” said Santa Clara Unified School District public information officer Jennifer Dericco, who’s worked for the district for almost 20 years. Attrition rates had increased 300 percent in five years; and it was costing the district an estimated $50,000 to train the replacement teachers.
So, in 2001, SCUSD built 40 units of affordable housing; 30 more were added in 2009, all allocated to teachers who have been in the district fewer than ten years, via a lottery system. After the first phase, the district found that for teachers using the benefit, rates of attrition had dropped to less than a third of the rate of teachers who weren’t.
The district stopped tracking attrition rates in relation to the housing years ago, but Dericco says that the housing is still always filled to maximum capacity, and teachers usually stay the duration of the seven years they’re eligible. The units didn’t cost taxpayers anything: They were financed instead through a complicated tax-exempt structure. Rents range from $1,210 to $1,905 a month in the two and three-story building development, called Casa del Maestro. “They continue to feel like that is an asset to teachers,” she said of the district. “To be able to live in the communities where they work, and be surrounded by colleagues and peers.”
SJUSD is looking to the Santa Clara model’s success for inspiration, and justification. But there are some big differences. The San Jose plan could be larger: Spread over more than the 3.5 acres that Casa del Maestro spans, the school would have room to add more than 70 units. And the need, almost 20 years later, is more acute. A planned Google development in downtown San José could bring 20,000 high-paying jobs (and bodies) to the neighborhood. Teacher wages are lower today, and benefits aren’t growing enough to keep up.
That’s another argument raised by some Almaden Valley residents: Don’t bulldoze schools and build low-income apartments—just raise salaries. “Pay the teachers enough to live, fuck,” as one commenter wrote on Braley’s petition. “They should be able to pay their bills without having to be in low income housing.”
But it’s not that simple. The San José Unified School District is only allocated $11,700 per student per year—79 percent lower than a comparable neighboring public school. “If we want to have the opportunity to hire and retain the best and the brightest we have to offer competitive wages or housing,” Nate Ramezane, an assistant principal in the SJUSD, told CityLab in a Facebook message. “I think if the wages option cannot be appropriately addressed, then housing would be the next best option.”
Ramezane’s account of how he made ends meet while getting his teaching career off the ground involved sacrificing friends, relationships, and free time, he says, by juggling classes, coaching, and bartending jobs. Almost a decade later, he has an administrative job with a higher salary, and he manages rental properties on the side; he watches as his colleagues moonlight and struggle to make ends meet as he once did. He supports SJUSD’s plan: “If educators could have a realistic opportunity at the American Dream,” he wrote, “then by all means Do It!”
There are other ways to get teachers into affordable housing without actually building it for them. SJUSD has considered partnering with Landed, a local organization that offers down-payment assistance to educators in the Bay Area, funded by philanthropic investors. “As a company, we are in favor of more supply, period,” said Nikki Lowy, head of partnerships there. “But we need to address both sides of the equation.” Brand-new housing takes years to build. Landed can get you a loan that covers half of a down payment in weeks. There are no monthly payments, or accruing interest: instead, you end up sharing the investment returns (or losses) when you sell the house.
This week, teachers and parents and administrators and community members will come together again at another public meeting to discuss the plan. They might butt heads, or find compromise. But there seems to be at least one thing on which everyone agrees, says Swenson, herself a product of the San Jose public schools that now employ her: “The school,” she said, “is the heart of our community, and the heart of our neighborhood. And teachers are the heart of our schools.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the nature of the housing assistance Landed provides.